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Dublin: 18 °C Wednesday 17 July, 2019
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"Against all the odds, I survived": Bethany Home survivors tell their stories

Two men who spent time in the Bethany Home as children spoke to TheJournal.ie about the neglect they say they experienced there.

DEREK LEINSTER IS in his late 60s, a cheery and amusing man who lives in Rugby with his wife Carol. They dote on their grandchildren, and take trips to Ireland, Leinster’s home country.

But his back story belies his positive attitude: Derek Leinster was born to a teenage mother who was sent to the Bethany Home in Rathgar, Dublin 6, because she was unmarried.

Their trips to Ireland aren’t holidays – they’re to meet with people like Government ministers as part of a fight for redress for Bethany Home survivors.

Bethany Home

An evangelical Protestant-run home, women were sent to Bethany for being what in the early part of the 20th century was considered ‘fallen’, that is: not conforming to society’s Church-influenced strict ideals.

Pregnant mothers were sent to the home around four months before giving birth, and had to stay there for a similar time afterwards. Their children were sent to ‘nurse mothers’ and usually from there they were adopted.

Listening to the stories of Leinster and his friend Patrick Anderson-McQuoid, it is clear that they had less than positive experiences at the Bethany Home – experiences that have left them physically and emotionally scarred for life. Now, along with a number of other people whose mothers also spent time in the home, they are part of the Bethany Survivors Group, and are fighting for an apology and redress from the State because of what they suffered.

In 2010, Niall Meehan, who works with the group, discovered the unmarked graves of 219 children who died at the the home from diseases as tragic as marasmus, a form of malnutrition.

One of the unmarked grave sites. Pic: Bethany Survivors Group Ireland

McQuoid’s mother was sent to the Bethany Home and gave birth to him in the Rotunda hospital. After she left, he was sent to a nurse mother in Co Tipperary.

But, like Derek, he became ill, and was moved to another home. He was found to have rickets in the head, a bad heart, and problems with his lower extremities.

When he was well, he was put into the care of the Irish church missions, who arranged for him to be taken to Northern Ireland where he was adopted.

McQuoid discovered later in life that he had a half-brother, who lives in South Lake City. Like Leinster, he was told no records of him existed, but later found records about his time in Bethany Home.

In 2007 he got a computer:  “And that’s how I found Derek”. He was trying to find information on the home, and now the men campaign for justice. “It’s an issue that doesn’t go away,” said McQuoid, who says the sense of comradery brings him through it.

Meeting

The men were part of a small group of survivors that met with Minister for Justice Alan Shatter on the issue of redress and an apology last week. It was part of their long-running campaign for acknowledgement by the State of what they went through – the home was not put on the list of homes under the Institutional Redress Scheme.

McQuoid described the meeting with Shatter as a “step in the right direction, put it that way”, while Leinster said he had “mixed feelings” afterwards.

Leinster describes Bethany as a “sectarian home”, raising the question if it wasn’t suitable under the redress scheme due to the fact it was Protestant.

People know about the main Catholic homes, he said: “If you said the Bethany home people wouldn’t understand that was a Protestant home. They wouldn’t know anything about it.”

Though told no records existed, he says he eventually did find documents relating to his time in the home. He has also received documents under the Freedom of Information Act that he says proves State involvement in the home, which should have qualified it for redress under the 2002 scheme.

If it’s not religious; if it’s not small and because we can be trampled on, what is the reason?
They are not treating us the same as everybody else.

Leinster notes that it was the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) that had pressed the State to examine its involvement in the Magdalene laundries. “We hope we don’t have to go down that road but we are prepared to if we have to,” he said.

He has written and self-published two books about his experiences, Hannah’s Shame and Destiny Unknown, and through these has met not only other survivors, but a cousin.

Pic: Derek Leinster

Family

Leinster’s parents were from Drumconrath, Co Meath.

My mother was 18 when I was born, and my father was 10 years older. My father was a Catholic and my mother was from a rank Protestant family.

They were unmarried, so when his mother became pregnant, she was sent to the Bethany Home. She left the home when her son was just over four months old.

What people forget: from that point of time the government became my parents. There was no one else. That’s who I would have depended on.

He says the home paid nurse mothers 15 shillings per child, and this money came from the State. He was sent to a nurse mother, and was in terrible physical condition: “My head was covered in push scabs and blood – you don’t get that from being well looked after.”

Was he neglected? “Big time”

The new ‘family’ nursed him back to life, but before he was due to be sent on to another family, he was sent back to the home. Then, at three he was diagnosed with pertussis (whooping cough), diptheria, gastroenteritis and bronchial pneumonia. Gravely ill, he had to stay in isolation in hospital for four and a half months.

No one from the home visited him. “Somehow or other, against all the odds, I survived.”

He then went to live with a new family, but his situation did not improve. There, he found himself in difficult circumstances once more. “I was hungry, I was starving and I was in rags,” he recalls. “They used to refer to me as the ‘poor eejit’ because I was slow.”

He used to go up on the hills and play with the goats, because he was so ashamed to be near people due to his unwashed state. “They didn’t judge me – they were my friends.”

Unable to read or write, he left school at the age of 13 and went to work for a farmer. Three years later, he caught the boat to England, where he has remained ever since.

When I left England at 18 my mind wouldn’t have been more than a 12 year old. I had been so suppressed and always put down. There was nobody there for me.

He still suffers from ill-health, and is on chemotherapy drugs to fight problems with his immune system. At the age of 24, he met Carol, who he would go on to marry two years later. She would write and read for him – “She became my writing hand” – and to this day still helps him with spelling.

He used to leave jobs when forms were put in front of him, which greatly affected his ability to find steady work.

Another remnant of his upbringing? “As a child I couldn’t cry. When my foster mother died [of TB] I didn’t cry. Now… I can’t bloody stop!”

Leinster has met some of his biological family, though his 90-year-old mother does not want a relationship with him.

Despite all of this hardship, Leinster and all of the Bethany Home survivors remain focused. They are looking for an apology, they are looking for redress, and they are seeking a memorial to the 219 children buried in unmarked graves in Mount Jerome cemetery.

The neglect, the hardship, the tough lives they experienced will not disappear if this is achieved, but it is clear from speaking to them that they will get one thing that they desperately crave: the acknowledgement that they matter, and what happened to them was wrong.

Leinster has this message for the Government:

They know they have to do the right thing because they know the people of Ireland want them to do the right thing; to treat all Irish citizens equally. This is the hour to demonstrate it, if there was never another one.

Read: “We hope he does the right thing”: Bethany Home survivors to meet Shatter>

Read: ‘Mixed feelings’ as Bethany Home survivors meet Shatter>

Read: Bethany Home survivors: “They will have to realise we are not going away”>

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